Ticks on pets need to be removed correctly
Two dog owners recently called me with different self diagnoses of their pet's problem.
The first message was about a Springer Spaniel: "He's got a wart on his head". When I examined the dog, it was true that there was a small growth-like object attached beside the dog's ear. But it wasn't a wart: it was a tick. I removed it: the problem was immediately solved.
The second message was about a Labrador: "She has a tick on her underside but I can't get it off". In this case, the opposite was true: the "tick" was, in fact, a small wart. It was no wonder that the owner was unable to remove it by pulling. The wart was harmless, so I told them to leave it alone: it wasn't bothering the dog and there was no need for it to be removed.
It's common for owners to be confused between ticks and warts: they have strong similarities to one another. They are both often around the size of small frozen pea, they are light brown in colour, and they are closely apposed to the skin surface. However a close examination will demonstrate the important difference between the two objects: ticks always have tiny legs that can be seen sticking out at right angles to the body, between the skin and the main bulk of the tick's body. If you are not sure whether or not you can see these, use a magnifying glass to look more closely. Ticks are alive, so sometimes you may see the legs move.
If you can't see any legs, then it's likely that you are looking at a small benign skin tumour, like a wart, and often no action needs to be taken, as long as the animal is not bothered by it in any way. If the pet is licking it, itching it, if it looks red and sore, or if it is growing rapidly, then you should talk to your vet about the best course of action.
If you can see tiny legs protruding, then the object is definitely a tick, and you ought to remove it to prevent irritation and the transmission of infectious diseases to your pet. But you do need to do this correctly and carefully.
The old methods for removing ticks have been discredited. Never try to burn them off e.g. using a lighted cigarette. This does not work and is likely to upset the animal. There's no need to smear them with oil to block their breathing holes in an effort to kill them. And you don't need to kill them with an insecticide before taking them off the animal. You can just remove ticks alive, as they are.
There are two easy ways to remove ticks. Before doing either of these, remember that you should wear latex-type gloves if touching a tick. Ticks can carry an infectious disease, Lyme Disease, that can be passed on to humans and dogs. It's a nasty infection, so it's best to prevent it by avoiding all contact between yourself and any ticks.
The first way to remove ticks is direct pulling, using tweezers or even more simply, gloved fingers. Grasp the tick near the skin, avoiding squeezing its body, and pull outwards. If the body is squeezed, infectious tick saliva may be accidentally squirted into the animal. Care needs to be taken not to pull too suddenly, and not to pull sideways. The risk is that the tick's head will break off, being left in the animal's body and causing a painful abscess.
To avoid the head breaking off, my favourite way to remove ticks is the second say: using a proprietary tick removing device called the O'Tom tick remover. If you visit the company website at www.otom.com, you can see a short video demonstrating its use. It's a small, precision engineered, plastic hook-like device that has a wedge-like slit. The v-shaped slit is slid over the tick, then the device is twisted between your index finger and thumb. This gently loosens the tight connection between the tick and the animal's body, and it falls off.
There are several advantages to the O'Tom tick remover. First, it doesn't leave the tick's head buried in the skin. Second, the device does not squeeze the tick's abdomen during removal: this removes the risk of accidentally injecting infected blood into the animal during the process. Third, the O'Tom can remove ticks of any size, from the tiniest pinhead sized one to the biggest, grape sized tick. And finally, it can be used to remove ticks in people, as well as in animals. As we move towards the summer tick season, any household that has witnessed ticks on people or animals should have an O'Tom tick remover in their first aid cupboard. You can buy them from a range of outlets, including online and vet clinics.
Simple removal of individual ticks can be the easiest answer if they are only seen occasionally. If, however, as we head into the summer, your dog regularly attracts high number of ticks, it's worth talking to your vet about the latest methods of preventing ticks completely. There are many methods, including sprays, spot-on drops and special medicated collars. The latest generation of tick preventive products are long lasting oral tablets: these just need to be given once a month, or once every three months, depending on the formulation. If you have a pet that regularly exercises in a tick infested area, these new methods are ideal: as is often the case, prevention is so much easier than cure: trying to pull off endless ticks, day after day, is not anyone's idea of fun.
Don't ignore ticks: they may look harmless but they can carry harmful infections.